Looking Forward, by George Bush with Victor Gold
by George Bush
with Victor Gold. Double-day. 270 pp. $18.95.
The jacket copy of Looking Forward promises “the first autobiography written by a Vice President while still in office.” That is not a reason to read it, of course; a better reason is the fact that, despite a gift for the maladroit remark and the presence of a host of rivals, George Bush is still—as he has been for seven years—the oddson choice to win the first post-Reagan Republican presidential nomination. “In a remarkably revealing self-portrait,” the jacket continues, Bush “answers all the questions. . . .” The second half of that sentence is nonsense; no politician ever answers all the questions if he can help it, and certainly not in a campaign book. But if read carefully, the self-portrait in Looking Forward is revealing.
Victor Gold, a veteran of two Bush campaigns, is listed as collaborator, or co-author. Gold, who practices journalism between elections, has one of the liveliest and most distinctive voices in American political writing today; his book on the 1976 campaign, PR as in President, was a farcical masterpiece. The stolidity of the prose in Looking Forward persuades me that the Vice President’s contribution to the project was substantial.
The book touches on all the most important events and phases of Bush’s life. He was born in 1924 into a successful family; his father, Prescott Bush, would become a partner in Brown Brothers Harriman, and a Senator from Connecticut. Six months after Pearl Harbor, on his eighteenth birthday, George joined the Navy, and served in the Pacific as a pilot. He went to Yale, where he played baseball and earned a Phi Beta Kappa key. He began his first career, in the oil business, as an equipment clerk in the firm of a family friend, and ended it at the head of a drilling company which pioneered off-shore rigs.
Bush’s second career began when he agreed in 1962 to become chairman of the Republican party in Harris County, Texas (which includes Houston). He made two successful runs for the House of Representatives (in 1966 and 1968), bracketed by two unsuccessful shots at the Senate (in 1964 and 1970). Then began the flurry of appointments which have so thickened his résumé: ambassador to the United Nations (1971), chairman of the Republican National Committee (1973), chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in Peking (1974), Director of Central Intelligence (1976). Looking about him as the Carter administration rattled down the homestretch, he saw Republican challengers “whose qualifications were no better than mine and whose experience in government and business wasn’t as extensive.” In 1979, he traveled a quarter of a million miles and attended 850 Republican political events. His industry won him the Iowa caucuses and, ultimately, the position he holds today.
None of this gets probed in great depth here; some sections of the book barely skim the surface. In his account of his time at the CIA, for instance, Bush does not even mention one of the most important episodes, the convening of the “Bteam”: a group of outside experts asked to make an independent estimate of Soviet strength, which turned out to be considerably gloomier than what the Agency had been giving. Many memoirs make up for skimpy history with rich storytelling; not this one. There are a few exceptions, one of them strangely powerful: at Leonid Brezhnev’s funeral, Bush found himself with a clear view of the “grieving widow approach[ing] Brezhnev’s coffin to say her last farewells. She looked down and then, in an unmistakable gesture, leaned forward to make the sign of the cross over her husband’s body. I was stunned.” Not stunned enough, however, to put the story some place better than in a footnote.
Looking Forward covers two aspects of Bush’s life in a useful way. The account of his service in the Navy should dispel the “wimp factor.” Bush flew 58 combat missions in the northern Pacific and the Philippines. On one bombing run over Chichi Jima in the Bonin Islands, though enemy gunners found his plane, he hit his target and bailed out over water, for which he won a Distinguished Flying Cross. It is not fashionable to notice such things, but George Bush was a brave young man.
Those who believe that athletics is destiny will study the pages on Yale baseball. Yale had a good team—it went twice to the College World Series—and Bush, who played first base, was a strong fielder. His hitting, however, prompted a friendly letter from the head groundskeeper. “‘After watching you play since the season started, I am convinced the reason you are not getting more hits is because you do not take a real cut at the ball. . . . I notice at the plate you are not going after any bad balls, and with the good eye which you have, I would suggest that the above be tried out.’” Bush took the advice. “It didn’t get me a pro contract, but it did bring my batting average up to a respectable .280.”
Tidbits aside, the most important service Bush’s book performs is one of placement. Looking Forward locates him in his class, and suggests his, and its, strengths and limitations.
During the 1980 Republican nomination battle, there was a good deal of talk from Reagan boosters, eager to encourage a “populist” trend in the party, about Bush’s “preppiness” and related vices. They missed an important distinction. Bush belongs to the upper class but not to the uppermost class, what Paul Fussell calls “top-out-of-sight.” Though he was born in Milton, Massachusetts and raised in Greenwich, Connecticut, his parents’ roots were in the Midwest—Columbus, Ohio, and St. Louis; both were children of businessmen. Prescott Bush settled in New England as the last stop in a peripatetic career as a manager. Though he ended up in Brown Brothers Harriman, he was not a Harriman. Similarly, when George went to Texas to make his nut, it was not an affectation of the idle; he was doing what his father had done. Bush’s background thus lacks any organic relation to the trust-fund liberalism—called generous by its friends, feckless by its enemies—of the great American rentiers: Roosevelt, Rockefeller, the Kennedy brothers. There is instead still a discernible connection to the subsoil of Midwestern strivers which produced such Republicans as Wendell Willkie and Thomas Dewey.
One is accordingly more disposed than otherwise to credit such biographical boilerplate as: “Dad believed in the old Ben Franklin copybook maxims . . . he and my mother embodied the Puritan ethic, in the best sense of the term.” Mrs. Prescott Bush certainly appears to have been a no-nonsense woman. “‘You’re talking about yourself too much, George,’ she told me after reading a news report covering one of my campaign speeches. I pointed out that as a candidate, I was expected to tell voters something about my qualifications. She thought about that a moment, then reluctantly conceded. ‘Well, I understand that,’ she said, ‘but try to restrain yourself.’”
He brought this earnest style to the many jobs he undertook. The main impression one forms of all those glittering appointive posts is that they involved a lot of dutiful slogging. He presided over the Republican National Committee as Watergate turned from a “caper” into a catastrophe; he came to the CIA at the mid-70′s nadir of its reputation. His time at the UN and in Peking was clouded by Henry Kissinger’s tight control of Chinese-American relations. Bush found himself struggling in New York to keep Taiwan in the UN, even as the White House was announcing Nixon’s China trip. Four years later, Kissinger, then Secretary of State, told him quite frankly that he was walking into a supporting role at the liaison office in Peking. “There’ll be some substantive work from time to time, but for the most part you’ll be bored beyond belief.”
These, one feels, were proper niches for a man of Bush’s temperament and station—the tough job, the long haul, the thankless task. Is he good for anything more? The question arises because he so often seems, on the evidence of his career and this book, to define problems as he defines his duties: in organizational and operational terms. At times, Bush’s pragmatism was a pragmatic maneuver, adopted to defuse conflict. When he took on the chairmanship of the Harris County GOP, he found a party split between members of the John Birch Society, who loathed him, and normal people. “There was no point trying to resolve the deep ideological differences in the membership,” Bush writes, “so I shifted the emphasis to the nuts-and-bolts of building the party organization.”
But the organizational approach crops up so often that it must be a character trait. In a concluding self-interview, Bush asks himself for thoughts about the CIA and the UN. His mind turns to flow charts—he suggests a joint congressional oversight committee on intelligence, and recommends that the Director of Central Intelligence and the UN ambassador both be deprived of their cabinet rank—and to nothing else.
A more significant instance comes as he recalls the moment in August 1974 when he and other Republican leaders decided that Richard Nixon had to go. “My letter asking him to resign was written,” Bush explains, “because a political party and the country [are] bigger and more important than any one person, even a President.” The country, to be sure; any good republican would say that. But Bush, the Republican, adds the party—adds it, and lives by it.
Bush’s virtues are underappreciated by verbalists and theorizers. There are more things in heaven and earth than in our political philosophy; they include loyalty, steadfastness, and a determination to get the job done. But Bush is reluctant to go beyond them. Phrases like “new ideas” and “vision” strike him as irritating buzz-words. “Vision of the future? Why would anyone run for President of the United States without a comprehensive view of the world . . . or . . . deep convictions about the course the country needs to take?” In most politicians’ mouths, they are indeed buzz-words. But most politicians should not be President, and many of them contribute nothing to the political debate. That may be why, on many issues, the Republican party has taken inspiration, not from career businessmen or politicos, but from veterans of such non-mainstream places as Hollywood, the Buffalo Bills, and the Georgetown University faculty.
It is remarkable that, in a book entitled Looking Forward, the author never once does so. “Would you like to talk about your program for the decade of the 1990′s?” Bush asks himself in the last chapter. “I’ll have a lot to say about that,” he replies, “after I become a formal candidate.” He has had his chance, since his announcement last October; and his chance will probably continue at least until next November. But however much he says, it is likely to leave many of those inclined to support him unsatisfied.